'Psycho Donuts' Divide Mental Health Community

A "crazy" themed doughnut shop in California is drawing customers and protests.

August 4, 2009, 7:27 PM

Aug. 5, 2009— -- Jordan Zweigoron had envisioned an "edgy" doughnut shop. But he had no idea his themed store in a strip mall in Campbell, Calif., would incite protests and TV broadcast debates about the mentally ill in America.

"The trouble started about two weeks in after opening," Zweigoron said. "A small handful of people took what we were doing very literally."

In Zweigoron's shop, Psycho Donuts, customers are handed bubble wrap to pop as they come through the door. Cashiers dress in old-fashioned nurses' outfits and patrons can get their picture taken in straight jackets near a mock padded room before they head out to sit in the "group therapy" area.

Many of the doughnuts in Psycho Donuts have nothing to do with mental health, such as the triangular "FungShui" green tea-flavored doughnut or the s'more-flavored treat. Indeed, Zweigoron said his initial business model was simply to reinvent the doughnut. The name came afterward.

"We looked at our own kitchen and said, 'These are really crazy doughnuts,'" he said.

Now many doughnuts -- like the bipolar doughnut with half chocolate frosting and nuts, half coconut flakes -- take names straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders that psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose patients.

"When the complaints started, the complaints were everything all at once. We have a doughnut called the Massive Head Trauma, the doughnut resembles a man who had ... better days," Zweigoron said.

The Massive Head Trauma, or M.H.T. for short, is a jelly filled doughnut with a frosting face with the letter "X" for eyes.

The M.H.T is one of Zweigoron's best sellers but "some customers said, 'What about the veterans coming back from Iraq with head injuries? This is offensive,'" Zweigoron said.

It wasn't long after Psycho Donuts opened in March before protests began.

"When I saw them [the doughnuts], it was total shock," said Oscar Wright, CEO of the United Advocates for Children and Families, a group that supports families of children who need mental health services. "The Massive Head Trauma -- to have a doughnut with a white glazed face and jelly oozing out the side of its head, it was incomprehensible."

Wright even debated Kipp Berdiansky, a former co-owner of Psycho Donuts, on a San Francisco Bay Area television show earlier this summer.

Wright pointed out that 50,000 people a year die of massive head trauma. "I don't think those mothers and those fathers and those grandchildren will appreciate a joke about massive head trauma," he said

As a former advocate for small businesses in California, Wright said he was supportive of the creative doughnut model. But, as a parent, Wright said he didn't see mental health as a joke either.

Can Doughnuts Contribute to Mental Health Stigma?

"Here in California we've got approximately 1 million kids who have a mental health disorder and 600,000 of them will not receive appropriate treatment," he said.

"Why is that? One is an issue of resources. But there are many parents who simply don't move forward with early prevention with their child because of social stigma," Wright said. "How do I know that? Because I was one of those parents."

Wright's organization, along with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and, eventually, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, has called for Psycho Donuts to change its theme.

"I think it's a fine line but you know when you've crossed it," said Joel Gurin, president of the schizophrenia and depression alliance. "I think the fact that people in this world say that's a 'crazy' idea, that's a 'crazy' doughnut ... it really goes beyond that."

Gurin said a doughnut shop with a "vernacular" use of a crazy theme would not be offensive, but that Psycho Donuts crossed a line because the decor and food mocked real psychoses and the treatment of mental illness.

But Zweigoron said he receives about four calls or E-mails a day from people with mental illnesses who support his business and think the theme is funny. And, as protests ramped up, Zweigoron said he only got more business from the media coverage.

Nadine Kaslow, the chief psychologist at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, said she was not surprised to hear some in the mental health community thought the doughnut shop was funny.

"Obviously, people are going to have a mixed reaction to this, even people with mental health issues, even mental health providers," Kaslow said. "But I think, in general, there is still a stigma for mental health issues."

A Middle Ground in Doughnut Controversy

Advocate Gurin said such a stigma -- which harkens back to the idea that mental illness was a character flaw -- translates into a reluctance to talk about mental health in public, poor funding for mental health care and additional burdens on people already fighting a difficult disease.

Advocate Wright said, "People would hear this for the first time and say, 'What's the big deal, it's a joke.' I don't fault people for having the other point of view, I think most of the time it's an issue of understanding. You couldn't have a cancer doughnut or a diabetic doughnut or anything of that nature because the public has become aware of those issues."

Initially, Zweigoron and the co-owner of the business resisted making any changes to the business model.

"We said, 'We're sorry, it's not your business," he said. "You don't have a right to tell us how to run our business. It's a free country, it's America."

But since Wright and others advocating for mental health issues have called for a compromise to use the notoriety for education, Zweigoron has bought out the other co-owner and promised an "evolution" in his themed doughnut shop.

"There have been some encouraging developments lately," Zweigoron said. "I've had a meeting with some of these folks. The reality is our business is not a typical kind of business. It's always going to be constantly evolving."

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